On September 15, 2017, a 20-year science mission came to an end as the Cassini spacecraft, which had been flying around Saturn, took an intentional suicide dive into the atmosphere of the planet. Cassini launched in late 1997, arrived in orbit around Saturn in mid-2004, spit a probe onto the surface of the moon Titan in early 2005, and had generally been collecting and transmitting gobs of information since then. With fuel running low after 13 years in orbit, the spacecraft descended into the atmosphere of Saturn at about 70,000 mph and relayed data back to Earth for as long as possible before it started spinning uncontrollably, broke apart, melted or some combination thereof.
Without question, Cassini was a highly ambitious and ultimately successful mission. To date, it is one of the most complex and largest spacecrafts that have ever been fired into the sky. Powered by a block of plutonium, since it would be too far to use solar energy, Cassini carried a slew of instruments to record and measure all kinds of data as it whipped around Saturn and its rings and got close to a decent number of its moons – discovering seven new moons in the process, among other accomplishments.
While the reporting about the mission focused largely on this thing, roughly the size of a small school bus, and the amount of science it accomplished nearly a billion miles from the sun, it’s easy to overlook the small army of people sprinkled across the globe who were responsible for it. So, let’s talk a little bit about those people and the skills it took to make an idea, first sketched out in the early 1980s, end up speeding into Saturn’s atmosphere decades later.
For starters, Cassini was not solely a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project; it also included the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). But it doesn’t end there, as it took the cooperation of teams across at least 17 different countries to design, build, launch and manage Cassini. In other words, the mission was a feat of international cooperation to rival the International Space Station, bridging numerous boundaries of languages and cultures. Undoubtedly, a ton of soft skills were involved for all of these individuals, teams and agencies to work together as one orchestrated unit. Referring to it as “a logistics nightmare” grossly underestimates the amount of coordination and communication needed to pull the whole thing off.
The volume of technical skills that the Cassini mission required is obvious and obviously varied. It took expert knowledge across a dizzying array of science and engineering fields. But the individuals who worked on Cassini are not superhuman; they’re just people, like you and me, who likely sat in traffic while they commuted to work, wondering what type of sandwich they might have for lunch, perhaps listening to the radio and drinking coffee or tea. Each individual represented a mammoth amount of training, between the time it took for them to graduate from higher education institutions, learn the ins and outs of their specialized jobs through both formal and informal training, and transfer and expand on those new skills to make decisions and tackle problems.
These individuals had to be continuously learning, acquiring new knowledge and skills, such as how to apply cutting-edge technologies or recent research findings and procedures from the larger scientific community. This notion applies whether we’re talking about an employee of the French company who assembled the probe; an engineer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech who sent commands to the spacecraft to run experiments; or a technician working at the Deep Space Network antenna in Australia, where the last signals from Cassini were received.
The ability to deal with ambiguity, a competency often found in leadership development programs, cannot be emphasized enough when discussing the success of the Cassini mission. At first, one of the camera lenses was unable to take anything but blurry pictures. At least a half dozen times after it launched, software glitches shut down the spacecraft. The data relay with the Huygens probe that landed on the moon Titan had problems that resulted in roughly half of the data being lost, even after engineers were able to compensate for a different design flaw that would have lost all of the data. Sometimes, they had to deal with totally unavoidable crises, such as when Cassini was forced into “safe mode” after being blasted by a cosmic ray that came from somewhere outside the solar system.
In all of these instances, individuals and teams had to troubleshoot ways to fix whatever they could to keep Cassini operational. And they did. While there was no way to formally train for these dilemmas, the combined training of those involved allowed them to innovate on the fly, creating new expertise seemingly out of thin air.
So, what’s the point? When it comes to the collaboration of skilled individuals, the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. And so it goes for organizations, even when the objective isn’t nearly as lofty as hurling a computer that cost $3.2 billion at a large planet made of gas. Every employee’s training starts well before they’re ever hired, and their learning can’t afford to be stopped after they’re on the job. Each person is the culmination of years of skill development and knowledge accumulation, and their expertise aligns to the goal of the company they work for in one way or another. Is providing training that nurtures that expertise worth investing in as a company? If you want to accomplish the incredible, then yes, it probably is.